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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 10:03 pm

Locks of love

The road ahead is full of twists, but we're headed in the right direction


The best compliment I ever got came from a stranger in a Chicagoland mall. We were trapped together in some sort of children’s play area, held hostage by our young sons, who were chasing each other around a big fiberglass treehouse. If you’re a parent, you know how these scenes go: Kids have a way of forming instant friendships, and when they do, they force us grownups to interact. “So, how old is your little boy? He sure is cute.”

The other mom and I quickly discovered we had something in common — both of us were visiting from out of town (she was from Atlanta) and both of us had named our sons Evan. My Evan was 5 and a bit older than her Evan, but the boys played together sweetly, as though they knew that any misbehavior meant going back to being human guinea pigs in a cruel experiment designed to determine whether watching mom shop can literally bore a little boy to death.

After we progressed through the usual pleasantries — how each boy liked preschool, how late they could stay up tonight, and whether their sniffles were from colds or allergies — the other Evan’s mother bestowed upon me the big compliment. “Somebody,” she said, eyeing my Evan, “sure spends a lot of time on his hair.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I do spend a lot of time on his hair.”

Her jaw dropped. “What? You do it yourself?”

Well, yes. I shave Evan’s head smooth from about the top of his ears down. Above that line, he sports a riot of short, squiggly dreadlocks, each one sprouting off in its own direction. Compared to my 13-year-old son’s barbershop buzz cut, Evan’s hair is labor-intensive. I devote an hour or two every week to cultivating and maintaining his dreads — corralling the wisps, twisting the new growth, applying conditioner and Lock & Twist Gel — while he watches his favorite DVD and dozes off with his head in my lap.

Still, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about Evan’s hair. I’ve seen other kids with longer, neater, cooler dreadlocks. What really surprised the other mom at the mall wasn’t Evan’s coiffure; it was the notion that a plain vanilla white woman such as myself could handle kinky African-American hair.

There was a time not so long ago when this assumption — that Caucasian parents wouldn’t know how to take care of a black child’s hair — was mentioned by the National Association of Black Social Workers as one reason white foster families should not adopt black children. If that logic strikes you as silly, then you’re undoubtedly Anglo and not intimately familiar with the complexities of African hair. Keeping Evan’s corkscrew tresses healthy and attractive may not require rocket science, but believe me, it’s close enough.

Because I’m his adoptive mom, I’m sensitive to any question about my qualifications. It’s not that I’m defensive; I just want to do this job right. The more profound challenges raised by the NABSW — such as instilling cultural identity, and preparing the child to negotiate the realities of a racist society — are tests I won’t get my final score on for a decade or more. Hair care is the one exam I can take today.

I learned through friends dear enough to share advice when I asked for it and even more when I didn’t. When Evan was a baby, I had a friend who ran an underground barber shop in his home. He was the only human being on the planet who could cut Evan’s hair without causing drama. Later, when Evan decided that any comb was the instrument of the devil, I prevailed upon a girlfriend to teach me how to do “twists.” During Thanksgiving weekend 2005, I took Evan and his favorite video game over to her house. Armed with a spray bottle and some gel, we tag-teamed Evan until his nappy wool was organized into tiny tight coils.

Over the next few months, this same girlfriend tutored me on how twists “mature” into dreadlocks. As Evan’s locks grew longer, another friend coached me on melding or “marrying” some of the thinner locks to make thicker, sturdier dreads. Evan’s daycare providers, who are our extended family, taught me to spritz his hair daily with a finishing sheen.

Last summer, Evan attended a camp where he spent hours in the swimming pool five days a week. This schedule had the potential to wreck his hair. We faced a dilemma — do we surrender the dreads and shave his head? Use a swim cap? Choose a different camp? My friends told me to just apply conditioner every night.

Now, if you examine Evan’s hair closely, you’ll discover it’s full of flaws. Some locks are skinny, some are fat, some are significantly shorter than the rest. These imperfections don’t seem to matter to Evan, whose crayon self-portraits consistently depict a smiling face topped with a roller-coaster. The style seems to suit his spirit.

I’m hoping the lessons I’ve learned with Evan’s hair will help us meet with the challenges that are more than skin deep. We won’t expect perfection, but strive for happiness, relying on the constant counsel of close friends.

November is National Adoption Month. This week is Thanksgiving and Evan’s 6th birthday. I have so much to celebrate.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at


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